The Covid-19 Pandemic: A Crash Course in Accepting Uncertainty?
Life may feel more uncertain than ever at the moment, but, then again, life is always perhaps less certain than we like to believe
Teacher and trainee psychotherapist Emma Kilburn offers 5 ways to manage anxiety related to lockdown uncertainty
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When this pandemic is finally under control, the impact of the coronavirus in the UK will primarily be measured in terms of the tragic loss of life. Sadly, the devastating impact of bereavement is now a reality for many of us. Less quantifiable will be the impact on mental health. Many of us are finding the ongoing anxiety about when the lockdown will end, whether friends and family will be affected, and when we will next be able to see them incredibly difficult to manage, to say nothing of the possible worries generated by precarious employment or financial situations. News bulletins do nothing to alleviate these anxieties, and – still – the daily announcements of the numbers who have lost their lives to the pandemic serve only to reinforce the terrible toll it is taking on so many families.
My own engagement with the news and stories about the pandemic’s impact has followed what may well be a familiar trajectory: initial, compulsive need to know everything about the virus and to read every story around its impact, both here and abroad; subsequent, slowing dawning understanding that I should heed the advice to limit my news consumption, and therefore the amount of time I spend actively engaging with the sad stories that flood our newsfeed and 24-hour news channels at all hours of day and night. This has helped me distance myself from what I felt was an unhealthy excess of empathy that was taking its toll on my emotional state. With so many examples of the damage this pandemic has wrought on so many communities across the world, it is literally impossible, and also not helpful, for us to attempt to engage with all of them on an emotional level.
It may be that certain stories have stayed with you, because they have struck a chord. As a teacher, I was sad to read about the death of science teacher Emma Clark, and could just imagine the impact such a loss would have had on her school community and on her form group in particular. Throughout March, I was truly stunned to follow the progress of the pandemic in my beloved Italy – where I have lived and studied – and to see images of empty streets and piazzas in the cities to which I was intending to travel this spring.
It may be that certain stories have uplifted you and brought you hope, despite the loss and uncertainty with which we are currently forced to contend. The most well-known of these is undoubtedly the fundraising undertaken by Captain Tom Moore, who at the time of writing has raised nearly £29 million by walking 100 laps of his garden (a sum which doesn’t account for the additional funds raised from sales of his number 1 single, You’ll Never Walk Alone.) Last week, I was reduced to tears by the story of the Spanish taxi driver who had been taking patients to hospital, without accepting payment. Called back to the hospital, he was expecting to collect a patient. Instead, he was given a standing ovation and an envelope of money by hospital staff who wanted to thank him for all of his efforts.
Why we need these stories
We need these stories for a variety of reasons; they can give us a sense of common purpose, reassure us of our basic humanity and goodness even in the face of such challenging circumstances, provide a counterpoint to the unremitting feed of distressing stories, and simply give us an opportunity for a cathartic cry. On the other hand, we also look for stories that can serve as a focus for our anxiety. Last weekend I was struck by the intensity of the anger expressed on social media in response to an article in the Sunday Times that drew readers’ attention to the amount of time that it claimed had been lost to government inaction. On one level, anger was an entirely logical and justifiable response to the suggestion that many of the deaths we are now seeing could have been prevented (though of course the government and others have refuted many of the article’s claims.) But I felt that the anger went beyond that, and that the article had provided people with a narrative, with something that could serve as a focus for a whole range of difficult emotions, and with a chain of events that might explain why we are in the situation in which we currently find ourselves.
Of course, even if such explanations of how we got here might at some point be forthcoming, we are left with the uncertainty of the present and the future. In reality, uncertainty is always part of life. The difference now is that this uncertainty has become unavoidable, since it lies at the very heart of the pandemic, and since the structures and routines we ordinarily put in place have suddenly fallen away. For many people, more time at home and more time to think has meant more time to dwell on uncertainty, which in turn has fuelled our anxiety about this experience of “not knowing”.
Even for those of us who regularly experience anxiety, our current situation presents particular challenges. While ordinarily our anxieties may in part be assuaged by the routines and basic certainties of everyday life, we now find ourselves in a situation in which both our new day-to-day reality and our country’s public life – as reflected for example in the daily government briefings – seem to confirm the uncertainty and loss of control that we had always feared.
How to manage your anxiety
Despite the undeniable challenges of life under lockdown for our mental health, there are steps that we can take to help us manage our anxiety.
1) Maintain an awareness of how and what we are thinking
We need to be firm with ourselves, and not allow ourselves to dedicate too much time to unproductive patterns of thinking. How we do this may vary. We might use mindfulness exercises to help us create a sense of detachment from our most difficult thoughts and feelings, and to diminish their ability to impact us negatively. For those who have yet to try mindfulness or who feel they don’t have the time to dedicate to it, there are a plethora of apps and websites that offer guided practice, including many two or three minute breathing exercises that can make a real difference in moments when our emotions threaten to overwhelm us.
2) Understand why our mind leads us down certain paths and how unhelpful this can be
With this increased awareness, we can ‘police’ our thoughts more rigorously. It is inevitable that life under lockdown will have led us to worry a great deal about the uncertainty of the present and the future for ourselves, our friends and family, and for wider society. It is important to understand the role that worrying plays in our psychological life. We use it as a tool to try and anticipate the future and thus to avoid the unexpected. It can give us a sense of certainty when faced with uncertain situations. It is this need for a sense of control that often sits behind our compulsive scrolling through our newsfeed. If we know everything, or have read everything, we imagine that we might find some elusive solution for our current situation and somehow be able to control how it will end.
While this is an entirely understandable impulse, it is also an entirely ineffective one. The pandemic will continue and then it will end, and while we can take practical steps to reduce the spread of the virus, its progression is entirely out of our psychological control. Worrying is exhausting. It also limits our ability to be in the moment, and to enjoy the small pleasures that continue to present themselves, even as we face the challenges of the lockdown.
3) Set aside time to worry
Of course, even an increased understanding that worrying won’t help doesn’t mean we will stop doing it. It is perhaps worth considering some strategies to manage the ways in which we worry, and for how long. It can be helpful to dedicate a particular amount of time, at a particular time of day, to worrying. Any anxious thoughts should, as far as possible, be put to one side, to be considered only during the 20- or 30-minute period we have allocated to them. With practice, this can help us manage our anxiety at other times of day, safe in the knowledge that we have time set aside to reflect on it, and that we still have permission to do so. Keep a notebook to hand during the day and jot down any worries that will need to be thought through. This not only reduces the likelihood of additional worries around forgetting what you want to think about, but also serves to distance you from the worries through the process of putting pen to paper.
4) Try to challenge your anxious thoughts
In moments of heightened stress, we are all more prone to black and white thinking. Even at a time when our personal freedoms are so limited, there are still many things that remain within our control and we should aim to focus on those. There can be comfort in establishing a routine for life at home, whether that be keeping regular working hours, planning meals for the week, or actively choosing a daily outfit, rather than sticking to pyjamas or jogging bottoms. If faced with financial challenges, we might establish how much of the day we dedicate to addressing those concerns, applying for jobs or looking into sources of financial support. If we feel heightened anxiety at the risk the pandemic poses to our health or to that of loved ones, we can exert our control by washing our hands, social distancing, and supporting our vulnerable friends and neighbours.
5) Try to adjust to uncertainty
In spite of the strategies we can employ to assert a degree of personal control, the uncertainty of our current situation remains. However difficult it may be, we should seek to challenge our need for certainty, which may manifest itself not only through our thoughts but through our actions. We may find ourselves seeking reassurance from friends. Yet while it is comforting and indeed essential to maintain contact with friends and family when we are not able to see them in person, this need for reassurance and connection may in fact reflect an attempt to control the uncontrollable, by seeking definitive answers or definitive proof that those we love are safe. The same impulse may lie behind a compulsive need to double-check things – whether that be emails, lists or light switches. Being absolutely sure creates the illusion of being able to limit the unknowability of the future. Similarly, a tendency to micromanage others – whether at home or at work – attests to a need to restrict the unpredictability of the future. If we can limit these negative behaviours, we can reduce the anxiety and stress that they may cause.
Some degree of anxiety and stress will inevitably remain with us as long as the pandemic does, and probably well beyond our return to anything resembling normal life. In the meantime and above all, we should be kind to ourselves. Our tendency to compare ourselves to others has not been diminished by a global pandemic, and if anything has been heightened by pictures of people living their best lockdown life on social media.
Beyond remembering to take Instagram with a very large pinch of salt, we should try to adopt an attitude of self-compassion. Some people will be better than us at dealing with all of this uncertainty and some will be worse. Don’t beat yourself up if other people seem to be handling the unpredictability of the situation ‘better’ than you. Each of us is having our own experience of the lockdown, and we would be much better served by dedicating our time and energy to our own wellbeing, rather than comparing ourselves to others.
Focus on self-care. Ensure you are getting enough sleep (or at least trying to), eat well, and go outside every day if you possibly can. Keep in touch with your friends, and try to avoid the tendency to isolate yourself that often goes hand in hand with anxiety. Focus on the basics. For every article about wellbeing during lockdown, there is another extolling the virtues of using this time to develop a new skill, learn a new language or finally write that novel. If any of those things will make you happier, feel free! But if not, concentrate on staying well, physically and mentally. None of us know what the post-pandemic era will look like, nor when it will begin, but self-care now will ensure that we are as ready for it as we can be.